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Practical Magic: An Interview with Mary Watson

W&A met up with author Mary Watson at the Young Adult Literary Convention [YALC] to discuss the inspirations from which she draws magic, and her relationship with the writing process…

Finding an authentic voice as a writer – especially in YA fiction – is often easier said than done. Like a wisp of wind, it’s something one can feel, and recognise… yet struggle to actually grasp and maintain. The command of a distinctive, unique voice that young readers will relate to, therefore, is a challenge. But for Mary Watson, author of The Wren Hunt (Bloomsbury, 2018), finding the voice of her main protagonist Wren stemmed from the most familiar of places; herself.

“I was living in Ireland at the time. I was missing home and found writing as a way of dealing with my homesickness. A lot of myself is reflected in Wren, who is a girl trying to find a sense of belonging within her community.”

The Wren Hunt is Watson’s first YA book and follows the story of Wren Silke, an augur, who is sent undercover as an intern to enemy headquarters and tasked with uncovering a truth essential to keeping her family safe. A battle between two ancient magics, the augurs and judges, reaches breaking point as a result, and Wren finds herself stuck between old loyalties and new relationships. 

A love of reading Irish mythology was the initial spark for the idea that she developed into the book. “I had read a lot of Irish mythology when I was a young girl growing up in South Africa. Even before moving to Ireland, I was fascinated by the old tradition of the wren hunt.”

Celebrated on 26th December, Wren Day (St. Stephen’s Day), saw ‘wrenboys’ in masks and costumes chasing an actual wren through woodlands. The tradition is still practised in some parts of Ireland and elsewhere today, although the bird has naturally been replaced by a fake counterpart attached to the top of a decorated pole. This ancient tradition sets the scene for the book as we are first introduced to our protagonist, Wren, being chased through the forest, pursued by judges who won’t rest until they have taken a trophy from their hunt.

The Wren Hunt refuses to be a story that fits naturally onto a specific shelf in the bookstore, having been described as thriller, romance, fantasy, folklore and mystery. Perhaps its most impressive feat, though, is the careful balance between reality and fantasy throughout the narrative. Writing about magic and not falling into cliché, for example, became a high-wire act for Watson. “I wanted to write about magic that was rooted in real life. Not crazy spells and the like, but a subtle magic that wouldn’t feel out of place. So if magic could happen now, it would be this type. More plausible and believable.”

And what about the modern Irish country setting of the novel? “There’s a combination of the present and past, and an attachment of the past working as a threshold between space and time,” says Watson, who drew influence from the natural wonders of Ireland having moved there almost ten years ago. She laughs at the mention of research trips that were thinly veiled as fun family day-outs. “My children would be there asking if we could go home, and I’d be writing down notes furiously!” 

Talking about the writing process, Watson agrees there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for writers. “I did do research and take notes but I didn’t plan hugely. I just wrote the book I wanted to write,” she says. “I didn’t sit down with the intention of setting out to write a YA novel.” It’s a refreshing idea, taking the path less trodden.

Watson’s route to becoming represented by an agent was  mapped out in a straightforward fashion. After being signed by Claire Wilson, she worked through a re-write before the book was acquired by Bloomsbury in early 2017. A whirlwind two years, then. And more to follow, too.

“There’s a companion book to The Wren Hunt coming soon. I think we’ve decided on a title now so I’m allowed to say it” she says, quickly seeking a nod of approval from her publicist. “It’s called The Wickerlight and publishes in 2019. It brings readers back to the world of The Wren Hunt, and it focusses on Zara, a young girl who is out to find who is responsible for the death of her sister,” she says, excited. “I felt that I had done all I could with Wren’s voice, but there was so much more to say within the world I created. I wasn’t finished with that.” 

And a final, simple question to round things off before we’re lost to the author talks and books on offer. What one piece of advice would she give to her unpublished self?
“Stop faffing around and stay focussed.”

Mary Watson is from Cape Town and now lives on the West Coast of Ireland with her husband and three children. Highlights of her adult writing career include being awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in Oxford in 2006, and being included on the Hay Festival’s 2014 Africa39 list of influential writers from subSaharan Africa. The Wickerlight is her second book for young adults, following The Wren Hunt. The Wren Hunt is available to purchase at Bloomsbury.com.